Public Prosecution Service and Legacy in Northern Ireland

– in the House of Commons at 4:58 pm on 13th January 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call Johnny Mercer, I wish to make a short statement.

I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters of sub judice to extend the waiver granted for proceedings in July to allow limited reference to active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to the historic troubles-related deaths. As before, reference to those cases should be limited to the context and to the events that led to the cases, but Members should not refer to the detail of cases or to the names of those involved in them. All Members should, however, be mindful of the matters that may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should exercise caution in making reference to individual cases.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Conservative, Plymouth, Moor View 5:01 pm, 13th January 2022

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take your words of caution seriously. I have worked hard with the Clerks to make sure that what I say falls within those boundaries. I thank you for granting this debate this afternoon.

This is an incredibly important subject. I have long been an opponent of the treatment of elderly veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the period known as the troubles. I have always thought that if people were actually aware of what we did to these veterans, they would be outraged, and so it has proved. I do not intend to spend time on their experiences in this debate. I have tried to be their voice at every opportunity, and I will continue to do so. I am so proud of them—we are so proud of them—and this weird shame, fuelled by those trying to rewrite this country’s history during that period at that generation of security force personnel who sacrificed so much to keep us safe, must end.

Today, though, I want instead to speak about why we are here and how we got here, and I must do it here. Every comment on any inference of unfairness in the justice system in Northern Ireland is often met by aggressive and threatening behaviour from those who have built themselves a very comfortable life off the public purse by prolonging awful experiences for the families of those who suffered during the troubles and veterans who were caught up in the diabolical blood-letting that occurred during that time in Northern Ireland.

I want to be clear about the context of my remarks. I know that different groups will take whatever they want from what I say today, and that is fine, but I want to be crystal clear at the outset: I have never campaigned for anything other than fairness in how we deal with legacy in Northern Ireland. I accept I come from the position of defending the majority of veterans who served their country with great distinction and upon whom the majority of the unfairness in recent years has fallen. I have been repeatedly clear to all on all sides on the need to prosecute and hold to account those who, with our flag on their arm, chose to step outside the professional boundaries all operators know and understand and could not adhere to the standards and values on which the British armed forces are built.

I have been equally clear, whether it has been in my dissemination of the Iraq or Afghanistan legacy systems, or that of Northern Ireland, too, that I have huge sympathy for the victims of those conflicts who lost loved ones and seek redress—particularly those who lost loved ones as a result of state actions. It is inhuman to think otherwise. I always approach these things as if it were my son or daughter, my mother or father who had lost their life. The state’s intervention in these things must always adhere to the highest standards, whether in the use of force or in investigations.

While I will always be in awe of the stunning bravery and humanity of the vast and totally overwhelming majority of those who served the state in Northern Ireland, it is clear that not every action met those standards. If we are to progress, we must accept that, for it is an undeniable truth, and to deny it prolongs the pain of those who were affected.

However, we must be equally honest about how difficult it is satisfactorily to redress these issues through the courts today in the 2020s—so difficult, it is impossible in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases. The standard of investigations into many of the cases were unacceptably poor. We must deal with the world not as we want it to be, but as we find it. Those deficiencies have been exploited by a small but very vociferous and very aggressive group in Northern Ireland who operate predominantly but not exclusively in the legal and political systems. They place the interests of both groups of protagonists, both victims and veterans, far below their own interests, be they financial or electoral, and have built a grievance industry on these issues, which serves no one but themselves.

It is inevitable, given the studious record keeping of the state in Northern Ireland when contrasted with the murderous chaos conducted by the terrorists, that this pursuit of political and financial gain was inevitably going to be conducted only one way: against those who strived night and day to prevent civil war in Northern Ireland, and not against those who woke up in the morning and made deliberate and conscious choices to go and kill women and children in pursuit of their aims. There will never be any moral equivalence between the two. The people of these islands will never accept any moral equivalence and those who push that narrative are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

It is also a fact that when the Good Friday agreement was entered into, it was decided that the price worth paying for peace in Northern Ireland was to permit those who had previously led and directed that terrorist activity to enter Government. This applied equally across the board. Thus the leaders of the IRA and loyalist groups entered politics, exercising control over the Executive and, crucially, permitting these extremists and their associates to use the powers of the state to prolong their grievances—and while doing that, of course, concealing their own murderous behaviour. They seek to prosecute the very security forces that fought them and thereby won the peace. All this is very predictable and very inevitable.

Where is the evidence? Well let me give the House a couple of examples. I will stick to what you said earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will stick to facts that are in the public domain and only comment on public officials. I am determined not to rely on the parliamentary privilege you have granted today and I will be very careful.

It is a fact that when the five cases—none of which have resulted in a conviction—that came before the courts this year were decided on, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland was an individual named Barra McGrory. I make no assertions on his motives at all, but it is a fact that Barra McGrory was, previous to his appointment, a long-term solicitor in Northern Ireland for the republican cause. His family members were present at the peace talks in Northern Ireland at the behest of the IRA. He represented Martin McGuinness at the Bloody Sunday inquiry and he represented Gerry Adams over many years.

It was Barra McGrory who decided to prosecute soldiers A and C in April this year, the trial that precipitated my leaving Government. It was the same Barra McGrory who asserted soldiers A and C had murdered a friend of Gerry Adams, the murderer and terrorist Joe McCann. I say murderer and terrorist, because it was accepted in court that Joe McCann had shot 15 soldiers. It is clear to any straightforward individual that Barra McGrory should have never been involved in this case in any way. Indeed, soldiers A and C were duly acquitted earlier this year because there was no admissible evidence against them. The judge said he was “surprised” this had not been realised before trial, clearly referring to the prosecution.

The problem with evidence was again raised in the recent trial of my friend Dennis Hutchings, when Barra McGrory, in almost total isolation and against advice, decided to prosecute Dennis. I say in isolation, because since Dennis has died the senior police officer charged with reviewing the evidence in that case has come forward and confirmed that he was very clear that this case should not be pursued, only to be overruled personally by Barra McGrory in his role as Director of Public Prosecutions. This happens everywhere in Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland, one of the most stretched and tested police forces in this nation, is overseen by the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Sitting on that board, holding the PSNI to account, is Gerry Kelly, who in a previous life shot a prison officer in the head and was convicted of causing a series of explosions in London.

I could go on about the total infiltration of the justice and political systems in Northern Ireland by those who, given their convictions, in any other country would be prevented from going anywhere near elected office or public service and handed the levers of state to re-write history in their image. It is madness. It destroys lives and it is preventing Northern Ireland from really coming to terms with its past and moving on to the bright future that almost everyone I have met there over the last year is eager to embark on.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

I thank the hon. Member for informing the House about the reality in Northern Ireland, and for the love and support that he offered to Dennis Hutchings—a good friend is hard to find, and he was a good friend to Dennis. Does he agree that of fundamental importance to the effective working of a justice system is public confidence in the structures of that justice system, and does he recognise that the reality in Northern Ireland is that cross-community confidence in the Public Prosecution Service is simply not there? Owing to its disgraceful pursuit of the Hutchings case and its inaction after the funeral of IRA terrorist Bobby Storey, Unionist confidence in the PPS is non-existent.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Conservative, Plymouth, Moor View

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have a lot of sympathy with that view, which I will come to in a moment.

Everyone understands that political settlements such as the Good Friday agreement require serious compromise —we saw the release of some horrendous criminals in 1998—but there must be a line. It is so terribly sad to see the effect on the veterans community; the poor victims’ families being dragged down this pathway, which promised not justice—for these so-called legacy practitioners are not stupid—but a version of “justice” that plays on victims’ worst fears; and a country ultimately thwarted by its past as it attempts to find peace.

After this year—this relates to what my hon. Friend Carla Lockhart said—there must be some sort of public inquiry into the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland. It takes public money, and plenty of it, so it must be accountable for its decisions. This year its professional decisions have been proved wrong time and again. It is not good enough and the people of Northern Ireland deserve better.

Let me move on to the second part of my speech, which relates to the Government’s proposals for how to deal with legacy in Northern Ireland. In a question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland before Christmas, I asked if he had any intention of keeping his word on these legacy proposals. He replied that he did not recognise what I was saying, so I want to help him understand the depth of feeling on this issue.

When I first brought forward the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill two years ago, in my then role as UK Veterans Minister, I was crystal clear from the outset that we could not do that without making similar provisions for those who had served in Northern Ireland. That was a manifesto commitment, and one that every single Conservative MP stood on. Indeed, it was repeated ad infinitum by the Prime Minister himself, at the election and from the Dispatch Box many times subsequently.

I made it very clear to the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary that it would be fundamentally wrong to create two tiers of veterans in this country: those who, like me, had served in Afghanistan or Iraq; and those who had served in Northern Ireland—one tier that would receive a degree of protection from lawfare, and one that would not. I secured a promise from the Northern Ireland Secretary that he would walk concurrent legislation through the House so that we would not create that discrimination against those who had served in Northern Ireland.

I will not rehash what happened. Suffice it to say, over the following 18 months, before I resigned, the Northern Ireland Secretary, the Defence Secretary and No. 10 all consecutively and repeatedly blamed each other, to me personally and in the newspapers, and not a single word of progress was made. When the Bill reached maturity, I was forced to break promises that I had repeatedly made to Northern Ireland veterans on the Government’s behalf from the Dispatch Box, and my position was untenable. Those are the facts of the matter.

During that time, the Northern Ireland Secretary promised draft legislation over and over again—I have written this all down but will not go through it now, because it bores even me. It is safe to say that this is the eighth self-imposed deadline that he has missed for coming forward with that draft legislation. He has produced the Command Paper detailing his thoughts, which came out in the summer. It should be noted that a Command Paper is not legislation. I welcome anything that shows that thought is being put into this matter, but I and countless others far more qualified and knowledgeable in this space than me were dismayed by its contents. I wanted to understand where these proposals had come from. I spoke to countless groups, including victims, veterans and political parties, and not only could I not find anyone who advocated the approach set out in the Command Paper, but I could not find anyone from any of these stakeholder groups who had been actively engaged.

Any proposals must have some degree of consent from those in Northern Ireland. Of course there will be no rapturous applause whatever is done in this space, but equally, people in Northern Ireland—victims, veterans and other groups—are not stupid; they understand the nuances of what can and cannot be achieved in legacy. To cut off pathways to justice for British citizens who have had their children murdered by terrorists is too much to ask. Releasing convicted murderers was one thing, and on-the-run letters were another, but denying any hope of answers for those who lost loved ones, from whatever background, is a step too far.

There is an almost childlike naivety in these proposals. Does the Secretary of State seriously think that those who have answers for the families—I remind the House that 90% of those killed in the troubles were killed at the hands of terrorists—and who are now off living a comfortable life in places like the Republic of Ireland or the United States will suddenly discover their soul and take part in the process?

The Secretary of State says that he has heard no alternatives. Even a cursory glance would show that there are many alternatives to that approach and many actors trying to influence his thinking. He may not choose to listen—that is his prerogative—but that is a different thing from saying that there are no alternatives.

Look at Op Kenova, for example, and the work of Chief Constable Jon Boutcher. Investigating one of the hardest parts of the conflict—agent handling—he has worked hard to bring both families and security forces with him. It is his life’s work, with no allegiance to either side but a relentless focus on the truth and on what is within the art of the possible in the justice space. To say that he has not prosecuted anyone completely misses the point; 22 files are currently with the prosecution service, but he does not have the resources to process them in a timely manner.

Finally, legacy is not an amateur sport. We cannot just charge at it with a set of election slogans and tough it out; victims, veterans and the nation deserve far better. There are plenty of options other than those in the Command Paper. We can give far more flexibility to prosecutors in the factors that they must take into consideration before proceeding to prosecution, including the recovery of key information for families. We can ensure more rigour in the process to arrive at better decisions than those that are currently being made, and of course, as I outlined in the first part of my speech, we can be far more fair-minded about who actually makes these decisions.

The issue must lie with the legacy professionals. We must take the politicians out of it and do right by the victims and veterans. It is difficult but absolutely possible to deal with legacy in Northern Ireland in a professional, courteous and fair manner, but it requires a political commitment and skill that we have simply never seen from the UK Government. I am calling on them for it today. The victims deserve it, the veterans who served at the command of this House deserve it, but chiefly the young people of Northern Ireland deserve it. They want to grasp their future with both hands, unmolested by the quarrels of an older, more violent generation. We should be on their side and get this done.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 5:17 pm, 13th January 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer for his speech on a hugely complex and sensitive area.

Northern Ireland has moved on dramatically since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed. We have moved society in Northern Ireland into a much better place than the one I remember—going to primary school with armoured cars on the streets, troops patrolling residential roads and, sadly, atrocities by terrorists a daily event—but in candour, what we have not done in the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is move Northern Ireland to a point of genuine acceptance of her past and reconciliation between the different communities.

At the outset, as someone who has never served in the armed forces, I want to make clear the admiration I have for those who have served Queen and country and who in Northern Ireland were at the frontline—a frontline that we in the United Kingdom did not want to create, but a frontline created by the actions of terrorists who were murdering innocent civilians and many members of our security forces, both in the Army and in the police.

I know the sincerity of my hon. Friend. Since he came into politics, his driving focus has been to secure adequate protections for those veterans who gave service so valiantly in Northern Ireland. I say to him that that is still an aim that this Government thoroughly share, as I hope was demonstrated through the delivery of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021, but our objectives in Northern Ireland are, rightly, far wider. We are unequivocal in our commitment to introduce legislation to address legacy issues in a way that focuses on information recovery and reconciliation.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

I recognise that my right hon. Friend has arrived to his position fairly recently, so this is more of a trail of what has gone before. None the less, there is a genuine and deep concern among many of us. I served in Northern Ireland, and lost people in Northern Ireland. I remember Captain Robert Nairac being tortured and murdered. His family never found his body—no one ever told them. We have had to put up with that for all these years, watching others who committed those murders go free. I simply say to him that, for me, this legislation—this requirement to protect our veterans—is not just an add-on. For me, it is part of my life. Can the Minister please tell us whether that is how the Government see it, or is it something to be shoehorned into the future?

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend speaks powerfully. I think I am correct in saying that I am one of a very small number of Ministers to serve in the Northern Ireland Office who was born in Northern Ireland. I still have a large number of my family across the island of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. For me, this is absolutely essential.

Shortly before Christmas, I returned to my old primary school, Park Lodge, in north Belfast. One of the children in a primary 7 class in a Q&A asked me what was the difference between Northern Ireland today and the Northern Ireland in which I spent the early years of my life. In answering that question, I realised that the Northern Ireland that I remember is but a distant history for those young people, but we believe passionately that addressing these legacy issues is vital to underpin a better future for Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend, whom I have heard speak on this many times over the years, is right that those who went to Northern Ireland to serve Queen and country, to uphold the rule of law, and to resist a brutal, barbaric campaign of Irish republican terror did so courageously, and it is wrong that they should now be hauled through processes for events some of which are 40, 45 years old or even older. That is what we are trying to address.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

I differ rather from my hon. and gallant Friend Johnny Mercer, as he knows, in that I actually agree much more with the Government’s suggestion that it has to be a combination of a statute of limitations and a truth recovery process. The problem that we have is that the Government seem to have thought their idea through very clearly, and yet, whenever we expect it to come forward so that we can then drill down deeper to see in which way it needs to be adjusted—perhaps a bit further away from my view and the Government’s and a bit further towards my hon. and gallant Friend’s—nothing ever happens. Having often spoken to him about the matter, I believe that the Secretary of State is well seized of the issues. We cannot understand the reasons for the delay. He needs to bring it to the House and let us get to work on it, because we all want the solution.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend speaks powerfully about how frustrated colleagues are that we have not yet brought that legislation to the Floor of the House. I say to my hon. and right hon. Friends and to all hon. Members that we are absolutely committed to making sure that, when we do bring these proposals to this Chamber, they will be robust and watertight. It would be negligent of the Government to proceed at pace until we are satisfied that the proposals we are bringing forward—

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

The Minister knows the history very well. The Secretary of State promised the Bill by last July. He did not deliver it. Then he faithfully promised the House we would have it by the end of the autumn. He did not deliver it. Yesterday he allegedly briefed the press that it was now delayed until after the Assembly elections in May. He did not inform the House—there was no written statement, no oral statement. We have five minutes left, so, rather than the Minister’s reading out a lot of Northern Ireland Office boilerplate, will he please just answer one question? Is it true that the legacy Bill is now effectively delayed until after the Assembly elections—and if it is not true, when will the Bill be introduced to Parliament? That is an extremely straightforward question. What is the answer?

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend and I have discussed this on a number of occasions and he has robustly questioned the Secretary of State. Let me give him a very honest answer to the question about the legislation’s being delayed and coverage of an alleged private briefing by the Secretary of State. That is categorically not correct. As far as I am aware, there has been no briefing from the Northern Ireland Office to the press about a delay to the Bill, and I have not been in any conversation in the Department with the Secretary of State or officials, or in any meeting in the NIO, where we have discussed delaying the Bill until after the Assembly elections or, indeed, any association between this proposed legislation and the timeline to the Assembly elections in May. That is not true.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

If there is going to be a delay, which there clearly is, can we know the reason why? Let us know, as people who are interested. My right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith and I both served in Northern Ireland—I did over three years there, so I would really like to see this sorted out before I die.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

To give my right hon. Friend an assurance that this will be resolved before he dies would require advance information from on high that unfortunately is not available to me. I hope he will have a long life and that he will see the Bill introduced and become law in good time.

The Government published the Command Paper mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View in July. I joined the Government in September. There was a large amount of feedback on that Command Paper and there has been a massive amount of engagement. The delay is to ensure that we get this right and that it not only achieves the Government’s objective to provide the necessary protections to those who served so courageously in Northern Ireland, but is also a measure that will advance the agenda of reconciliation and cross-community understanding in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

That is the point of the whole debate, so let us get to it. I must tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that the Secretary of State told me specifically in terms that this Bill was now sitting solely for sign-off. It was all done, it was drafted and it was ready to go before Christmas. My question therefore is, how did it suddenly discover a whole set of consultation that needs to happen when it had gone to sign-off? I really find this very difficult. If the Minister cannot answer now, can he please go back to the Department and say, “For God’s sake, get this clear”?

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend and talk about that in a degree of detail, but I keep coming back to the central point that it is important, before the Bill is brought forward, that we are confident it achieves the Government’s ambitions for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View knows from his previous incarnation as a Defence Minister, that requires sign-off across Government and we need to be absolutely certain that we will not end up creating inadvertently another mechanism by which innocent people are dragged through processes they should not have to face.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Who is blocking the Bill? The Bill is ready; who is blocking it?

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

No one is blocking the Bill. There is ongoing engagement across Government to ensure that the Bill, when it is brought forward—

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend is scoffing, and that is fine, but it is absolutely, unambiguously, unequivocally the Government’s commitment that the Bill will be brought forward and put before this House.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

You have already broken multiple deadlines —we don’t believe you!

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. That is unacceptable. Minister, there are five seconds left.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend is obviously and rightly angry—

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I hope we will mollify him when we bring forward the Bill.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).